Friday, January 4, 2013

Best of 2012: Movies

I have often wondered why films possess me so. Why do any of us go to the movies? Often to be entertained, sometimes to walk in the unfamiliar shoes of another, sometimes to be dazzled and wowed, sometimes to be educated, sometimes for a distraction from personal troubles, and sometimes to simply laugh. As we lower ourselves into the theatre seat, so does also sit down our expectation regarding the film we are about to see. And every once in a while the film defeats those expectations. It wrestles us into a place we are unprepared to be. And in spite of all the objective rationalization we may try to apply to what is unfolding on the screen, it forces an involuntary emotional reaction. I live for such moments. When a film simply takes me over.

There are few who will argue that 2012 was uncommonly rich in terms of its cinematic offerings. There were many films that elicited in me a deep abiding respect (Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln). Many that left me giddily entertained (The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Premium Rush). And several that informed me about things I was completely unaware of (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, Reportero, La Camioneta). But as in prior years, the movies that made it on my year-end Best Films list were those that, in a small way or large, flipped something within my emotional circuitry:

1. Life Of Pi
On the surface this is a simple man-versus-beast story: following a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean, a boy is abandoned on a lifeboat along with a tiger, and both have to learn to survive the ordeal together. But the scope of the film runs deeper. Like the Yann Martel novel the film is based on, it comments on the nature of, and the need for, faith. And on the necessary deceit that accompanies most story-telling. Featuring one of the better examples of an unreliable narrator, there is much to debate about after seeing this film, and I could talk about it for hours. But forget the philosophy and just enjoy the movie for its visual mastery; it is unlikely anything more impressive was projected on to a cinema screen this year. Featuring game-changing use of 3D, the film’s greatest achievement is in its ability to make you emotionally invested in the relationship between a boy and a tiger. Which is no small feat considering how many (myself included) had long considered Martel’s book unfilmable. There is a scene late in the film, where overcome by despair, hunger, sea-sickness and the unrelenting hopelessness of being lost at sea for months, the boy places the tiger’s head in his lap and hugs him; for that moment the tiger is not a predator and the boy is beyond fear. My mom tells me this moved her uncontrollably to tears, and I am not going to argue with her about the power of that moment. An adventure film with gorgeous visuals that makes you think, while also being emotionally persuasive? I cannot reasonably ask for more from a movie.

2. The Impossible
The Impossible is the sort of movie that gives melodrama a good name. It is a harrowing account of a family’s experiences in the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami from a few years ago. When you have just awakened from a terrible natural disaster, what is your greater immediate imperative? To search for your missing loved ones or to help strangers around you needing acute assistance? The film is structured around the awakening in the conscience of the oldest son, (played in an award-worthy performance by the young Tom Holland), who realizes that the only way his separated father and siblings might have survived the disaster is if some complete stranger might have in turn helped them. It is rare for films these days to go big with sentimentality. But The Impossible achieves such an unquestionable sense of authenticity with its main characters that it earns the right to draw on grand-scale emotionality. This film is being written off in some circles as being manipulative and overwrought. But what can I say, when you are seated in that cinema seat, you feel what you feel. And I left this film feeling grateful and raw.

3. Argo
Already celebrated as a critical and commercial success (the San Diego Film Critics Society named it the best film of the year), Argo is a telling of the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true CIA plans in the seventies to rescue American consulate workers out of Iran at a time of considerable anti-American sentiments in the country. It is both a nail-biting political thriller and a fond and humorous send-up of Hollywood at a time when it existed at its flashiest. I am a tremendous fan of the film, and can comment on much I admire about it. Let me stick to these: First, I am glad it has finally granted Ben Affleck accreditation as a top-tier American director. Second, more established directors could learn from this film about economy in story-telling; there isn’t a wasted shot in this crisply crafted movie (Tom Hooper, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino take note). Finally, where many filmmakers, even accomplished ones fumble with how a movie is wrapped up, notice the deftness of touch to the last few scenes of Argo, that manage to be both wistful and heartening.

4. Cloud Atlas
I am a sucker for big, sprawling, visionary films, and this one got a rough deal at the box-office. How much more ambitious can a movie get than one that tells six separate stories bridging across more than two hundred years - starting from the early explorers of the Pacific seas, then to the present day, then to a future dystopian world and then finally to a post-apocalyptic one. The film (and the David Mitchell novel that it is based on) resolutely avoids easy connections across the six stories. Many found the quest to find the underlying theme of the movie frustrating. But I found the absence of overtly obvious connections refreshing. Let the viewer find what they will. And I found every story an indictment of the human instinct to oppress the less fortunate. We have been a miserable species for thousands of years, and will likely continue to oppress even in the future. And the only hope we stand to break out of this cycle is through kindness. This may sound a little too glib to some, but it had a surprisingly strong resonance for me. Yes, there are parts of the film that are frustrating (that dialect in the post-apocalyptic world) and others that are downright silly (Hugo Weaving in devil-incarnation mode, trying hard not to induce giggles). But I was also surprisingly moved by parts of the film. Thank God someone is thinking to make movies of such boundless scope still.

5. Your Sister’s Sister
If there is one film on this list that I would beg people to go out of their way to seek out, it would be this one. I have boundless affection for this movie.  It takes three characters: a grieving man, his best friend and her sister, and allows them to be complex and contrary and watches them interact in authentic ways. This is likely the most human film I saw this year. When you have Rosemary DeWitt, Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass inhabit these characters, you get something approaching a minor miracle. This is DIY (Do It Yourself) filmmaking at its best; director Lynn Shelton mentioned after the Toronto International Film Festival screening of the movie that as a starting point, the three main characters were fleshed out in a fair bit of detail, and the rest of the movie was improvised and allowed to develop organically from these characters. There is a scene in the film of Rosemary DeWitt and Emily Blunt lying in bed, their heads on a pillow, as they chat late into the night. That they unequivocally convince you of the intimacy between siblings is a marvel of great acting, writing and direction. The film also, by the way, features the best last scene of any I have seen this year. Some films you want to hug; this one I want to hug long and hard.

6. Prometheus
There is more originality in the first ten pre-credits minutes of this film than most entire films. Like Cloud Atlas, with which it shares more than a passing resemblance, Prometheus has ambition to burn. At all times a sci-fi marvel of Production Design, the film every once in a while steps into all-out horror. Even when it fails to satisfyingly answer all of the questions it asks (including, nothing less than where we, as human beings, came from), I admired that the film asks these questions at all. And then there is that superb pacing, always a hallmark of Ridley Scott films. And here, a much discussed scene of gestational termination provides a master class on how to build tension in cinema. This is a beautiful, flawed, visionary piece of work.

7. The Sessions
The Sessions taps into a topic seldom dealt with in the popular arts: the sexuality of the disabled. This is a small-scale film that evokes some big issues. The movie is based on the real-life story of Mark O'Brian, a Berkeley area poet/journalist, who after being afflicted with childhood polio, needed to live in an iron lung and had no useable motor movements below his neck. In a fearless performance, Helen Hunt plays a sex-therapist who tries to assist O’Brian with fulfilling his desire to lose his virginity. It is a tricky role, depicting the complexities of a woman with a husband and son and conventional life, who, as part of her professional career is required to get physically intimate with others. John Hawkes, that charismatic and effortlessly menacing actor from Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene is unrecognizable here in the lead role as a man constantly shrunk down to size in the presence of the medical equipment around him. The film features some stellar writing, especially when it gets into decidedly unchartered territory, and performances that make you forget that you are watching actors. I found this an original, intimate, and affecting film

8. English Vinglish
A film about a housewife in India who is not particularly appreciated by her family, not least because she is unable to speak English, doesn’t exactly sound like must-see cinema. But this film is a marvel of the small things that define most lives: small gestures, small slights, small actions. I suspect many found the movie overly simple and conventional, but I delighted in its subtle observations. Gauri Shinde, the director, also had the unreasonably good sense to bring back to cinema one-time screen legend Sridevi to play the title character. And she reminds us of the effortless chemistry all good actors have with the camera. The film is considerably undone by an uncharacteristically heavy handed final thirty minutes. But perhaps because it resonated with my own experiences, I look back at the film as a whole with a smile on my face.

9. Searching For Sugar Man
A good documentary should inform about crucial issues. The best ones have the potential to elicit social reform; change the way we live. And all effective ones ought to tell us a little bit more about how we live today. Searching for Sugar Man does none of these things, and yet was one of the best cinematic experiences of the year for me. The filmmakers pursue the mystery of Sixto Rodriguez, a 1970s cult musician, who in spite of tremendous critical reception from his peers at the time, garnered no popular success in the US. A documentary about this elusive Dylanesque troubadour hardly sounds like compelling viewing. But once I started watching this film, I was pulled into it whole, in spite of myself. Sobering and unpredictable, this movie is the one thing that eludes most films: inspiring.

10. The Grey
On the face of it this is a survivalist film, of a group of men stranded in the arctic cold after their plane crash-lands into a wilderness populated by predatory wolves. To make it through, they need to learn not only to combat their lethal surroundings but also each other’s behaviors so they can make it to safety. We have seen this man versus nature story before, but what elevates this film is how it finds the means to fold in some remarkably effective philosophical musings. Are we destined to simply play out a fate written for us, or can we willfully change the future? Lost without any chance of external help and suddenly on the food chain of larger beasts, some men find the fight for survival futile while others are willing to fight to the last breath. Best of all, the movie finds in its last act, something approximating grace, a poetry of despair. Not bad for what might seem like a standard-issue Liam Neeson action movie.

A testament to the high quality of films released in 2012 is that the following additional films (listed alphabetically) could have easily made it on this list: Anna Karenina, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Friends With Kids, How To Survive A Plague, Killer Joe, The Perks of Being A WallFlower, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty.

Other quality films from the year that I cannot allow to go unmentioned include Ferrari Ki Sawaari, Jeff Who Lives At Home, The Kid With A Bike, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom, People Like Us, Promised Land and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World.


  1. Its been that kind of year for me.. just watched 3 of your top 10.. time to catch up soon..

  2. Hi Vijay. I usually don't get around to watching all the films I want to before February or March of the following year. Truth be told I like the idea of catching up with the better regarded films, it is like having saved up dessert to enjoy at a later date :)